Infinite Appetite, Finite Budget: The Excelsior

Its main drag looks a lot like Queens, N.Y., which happens to be the most diverse place in the U.S.

Chicken banh mi at An Chi. Photo by Eric Pratt

Like the Portola, its neighbor across MacLaren Park, the Excelsior is a residential neighborhood that centers on a single commercial corridor, in this case Mission Street between I-280 and Ocean Avenue. It’s home to a few locations of well-known local mini-chains — Henry’s Hunan, El Farolito, Taqueria Vallarta, Cumaica Coffee — plus a Safeway, a Quickly, and a smattering of American fast-food favorites from good old Yum! Brands.

But it’s also an astonishingly diverse strip, similar to the culinary heaven found on Mission between 30th and Cesar Chavez streets — only without the upper echelon. Amid a clutch of neighborhood dives comparatively few Ubers idle out front of, you’ll find plenty of Filipino, Hawaiian, and Mexican food, plus a number of other places if you know where to look. In short, the Excelsior keeps it real.

An Chi
4683 Mission St., 415-333-9997

Send noods! This Vietnamese place with a brisk takeout business serves the standard pho, banh mi, and imperial rolls with vermicelli that late-2010s diners have come to expect. Few items breach the $10 mark, and among the familiar favorites are some worthwhile rarities, including fish cake rolls with a remarkable texture.

Calabria Bros. Deli
4763 Mission St., 415-239-2555

The Grand Lodge of the Order Sons of Italy can be found on Mission Street not far from Italy Street, so it’s unsurprising that there would be at least a vestigial Italian presence in the neighborhood. You’d have to go to North Beach — or possibly Lucca — to find the equal of Calabria Bros., with its hanging, netted mortadellas and rows of specialty imports. If you want to eat like they do on the boot of Italy, get a Hot Calabrese (salame, hot coppa, pepper jack, and hot garlic spread, on ciabatta) for $9.75.

Baby’s Eatery and Palabok
4609 Mission St., 415-585-0990

There are few panticerias in San Francisco, but Baby’s wins widespread praise for its adobo and for its dinuguan, a rustic pork stew prepared with plenty of garlic and vinegar (and pig’s blood). It’s very small, so while no one puts baby in the corner, that’s where you might be eating. Order by pointing in the authentic way, and don’t skip the four-for-a-dollar lumpia, either.

Hwaro
4516 Mission St., 415-859-7111

Neither a hole-in-the-wall nor armed with a battery of publicists, Chef Ryan H. Lee’s Korean spot serves standards like japchae, bibimbap, and sweet-and-spicy fried chicken along with somewhat experimental fare such as kimchi cheese (with mozzarella and tortilla chips for dipping). Named for a small stone hearth, Hwaro also puts out some less-than-ubiquitous Korean ramens, to which you may add kimchi, squid, Spam, and other toppings.

Sungari Dumpling House
4543 Mission St., 415-333-3681, no website

For some reason, dumpling houses at which the dumplings are inferior to just about everything else are not an uncommon phenomenon on this Earth. At this no-frills spot with dishes from China’s northeast, fans go nuts for spicy wontons and Shanghai hand-cut noodles that render ordinary lo mein inedible. (They show up in the soups, too.)

Witch Doctor’s
4826 Mission St.

Formerly the Doctor’s Lounge and home to pop-ups like Illyanna Maisonet’s Puerto Rican sensation Eat Gorda Eat, Witch Doctor’s changed things up earlier this year. Opening at 10 a.m. on weekends means this comparatively upscale dive with 20 beers on tap — and a rotating sandwich-of-the-month — is much more than some dark sports bar. Throw back two of these (with a breakfast burrito) and call us in the morning.

Pampaguena Cuisine
4441 Mission St., 415-586-8899

Goldilocks Bakery is gone, but between Baby’s, Superstar, and Pampaguena, there’s enough left in the Excelsior for people to get their Filipino fix. Chef Josie Yumul gets ambitious, with dishes that require an imposing amount of time and labor, like meat-filled kamayan-style feasts. But a sizzling platter of sisig baboy never fails to hit the spot.

Recovery Room
4528 Mission St., 415-523-6988

A sports bar that wore its bad attitude on its sleeve, Pissed Off Pete’s revamped its menu a few years back and it’s now under new ownership as the Recovery Room — but it kept the neon sign, shamrock and all. A few doors down from an O’Reilly Auto Parts, it’s one Irish block, but with lots of sports on TV and vastly improved restrooms. Bar snacks, live music, PBR on tap — surely more people are pissed-drunk than pissed-off these days.

Rocks Den
4431 Mission St., 415-769-5100

The wallpaper gives it away, does it not? Or maybe it’s the pool table with immaculate red felt. Either way, this is the Excelsior’s true cocktail bar, a place that balances the tenets of mixology against $8 shot-and-a-beer specials. A giant leap forward in style from Cotter’s Corner, which it replaced, Rocks Den might pull patrons from the widest radius.

Mr. T Cafe
4869 Mission St., 415-769-5681, no website.

Stop your jibber-jabber! This boba tea shop has nothing to do with B.A. Baracus or the A-Team, but it does have desserts that look like lionfish in the Academy of Science’s aquarium. Take the mixed fruit honey toast, which sounds nearly plain until you get a gander at the way this slice of cake has been decked out. From egg puffs to popcorn chicken, nothing here is good for you and everything is good.

Hawaiian Drive Inn
4827 Mission St., 415-586-9382

Once again tethering the Excelsior to the Portola, the two locations of Hawaiian Drive Inn that are in San Francisco proper can be found in those neighborhoods. But the key thing is that each of them operates independently, with its own menu, and the Excelsior location is all about chicken — particularly chicken katsu and barbecue chicken musubi. Hope you like big portions.

 

Read more stories from SF Weekly‘s Excelsior issue:

X Marks the Excelsior
What’s the difference between the Excelsior, Outer Mission, and Crocker-Amazon? Here’s our spreadsheet cheat sheet to these borders.

On the Outskirts But Certainly Not ‘Sleepy’
The little neighborhood at the far end of Mission Street has its fair share of news-worthy drama.

A Thrilla at Manila
Manila Oriental Market, the pan-Asian grocery at the corner of Mission Street and I-280, is a treasure.

Excelsior’s Princess Diaries House Keeps the Dream Alive
Anne Hathaway got her angst on in a historic Excelsior firehouse. Go there and relive your teenage dreams!

Head Banned
The neighborhood nicknamed ‘Dispensary Row’ has sparked, um, a  row over zoning that’s kept new marijuana businesses away from the family-dominated district.

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